"I let the ladies out of their rooms, they should meet us in the stables." Jason frowned as the kid skipped out of sight, then hustled back.
"I spotted them, everything's going according to plan. Umm, let's hurry."
Castle Hill was steep sided, and looked like a careless god had sheered off the top. The outer wall wound around to maximize the difficulty of assaulting the royal palace from almost every direction. The castle was built on a smaller rise across from the main route down off the mountain, with its own, even higher wall.
Which, for Jason and his party, made escaping rather difficult.
But if Ecksey is right, and King Reynold is keeping quiet about my detention . . . perhaps we can just ride right out of here.
He strode out of the castle proper, as if he had every right to. A quick glance showed that the bailey gates were wide open to the roughly level mountaintop, where the main stables, the guards' barracks, and various outbuildings were located.
Jason kept to a steady pace. No guards at the inner gates, down the ramp and across to the horse barn.
All the ladies and their maids, dressed for riding, hovered outside. As the men approached, Countess Iris raised her voice. "Your message to have all our mounts saddled never arrived. We're having to wait." Her tone and lifted nose were perfect. Her hands were clenched in her skirt.
"Damn. Lazy page, I'll whip him myself." Jason slowed and joined the women. The two grooms swept around them and hustled into the barn. "Which brings up the next problem. We've only got ten riding horses for nineteen of us. We can't just get out the big carriage . . . "
The count nodded. "Nor can we ride out, doubled."
"There's a small door in the wall behind the stable. They dry stacked rock to conceal it from the outside." Ecksey bounced on his toes. "It’s how I got in. I'll take everyone else out through there, so you just look like a little riding party."
"But . . . we need so much . . ." The count was looking worried.
"I've got supplies—and my own horse—just upstream of the ford where the road crosses the river." Ecksey grinned. "Maybe we should get a head start. Who's walking?"
Jason bit his lip, and sent one groom with Ecksey and kept the other, and one maid for the riding party.
William frowned as the other maids and the servants followed Ecksey around the barn and out of sight. "Jason? Who is that boy?"
Jason though about whatever Ecksey had done to Blange the Monster . . . not to mention two prison doors and four guards taken without a single shout. "Will . . . I'm not sure but that the question ought not to be what is that boy?"
He caught some nervous glances. Shrugged. "I've never heard of a young wizard, let alone a magical child. But he's trying hard to hide the impossibility of . . . a large number of things I’ve seen him do. But right now, he's either setting us up to be killed, or, as he claims, having an adventure rescuing us."
William looked back in the direction the boy had gone. "I have heard that demons are red, but not that they look like redheaded boys."
The grooms started leading the horses out, and they mounted, circled until the last maid was boosted aboard, then they walked the horses across the motte and through the portcullis.
No problem. He kept his desire to gallop under control until they reached a flat stretch of road. Then back to a walk for a steep corner, and another descent. A curve back.
From uphill, the sudden clangor of an alarm.
"Just keep going, we've got at least a two mile head start on them." Jason let his horse trot out a bit faster.
Then a long stretch with a gentle downward angle that they trotted.
Jason looked to his right and could see the tops of the castle towers.
Not very far away, in a straight line.
The brushy, rocky slopes were starting to sport a few scrawny pines, now. Jason wondered if Reynold cut them down before they reached a useful size. Any timber for siege engines would have to be brought from a considerable distance.
A pounding of hooves from above them.
"We're out of sight, so far, but there's no place to get off the road." Peered ahead. The road disappeared around an outjutting shelf of bare rock. "C'mon."
All the ladies were accomplished horsewomen, and even the maid was doing well. Jason put his spurs to Royal's sides and led the way.
Around the rock point and straight into half a dozen guards, rushing up the road. Unaware that the cause of the alarm they were responding to was so close, it took them a fatal moment to react.
Jason sliced the neck of the leader as he passed, extended the short sword and stabbed the fellow behind him, lost his grip on the sword as the man fell . . . but Franz surged up and blocked a guard on his left then the Count was on his right . . . and Ramon and Gerald bringing up the rear looked disappointed to find the job done.
"Grab their horses, quickly, we'll need the extra mounts . . ." Jason's head jerked around at the warning cry from one of the women behind him. He threw himself off the horse and grabbed a fallen sabre.
The approaching troops had spotted the women and the groom who were bringing up the rear of the group, and came up to them in good order. Two crossbowmen were placing darts in their cocked bows . . .
A small form darted across the rock shelf and leaped at the nearest bowman. Landed behind him, grabbing his arm and pulling it around as the horse spooked. A snap as the bow released, and a scream, as the dart hit the other bowman.
Ecksey hit the ground, along with his limp first victim, and jumped to grab the other crossbow as the injured man lost his grip on it. He snatched the falling dart in mid air, and ran clear of the melee.
Even above the screams and clashing steel, Jason could hear the thunderous charge of the huge beast that came into sight. Blange the Monster rode a giant of a horse. A black ton of fury.
"Capture them!" Blange yelled.
Ecksey raised the cross bow. Snap.
Blange stiffened . . . and fell. The yellow feathers of the dart sticking out of his mouth.